Two hours before the Grizzlies played the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, Feb. 26, at FedExForum, Memphis coach Dave Joerger talked about the last loss – at Charlotte – the game ahead, and that aggravating play that recently invaded Memphis living rooms, including Joerger’s own.
Dirk Nowitzki had hit a buzzer-beating shot to lift the Dallas Mavericks to a win over the hapless New York Knicks, preventing the Grizzlies from gaining ground in the Western Conference playoff chase. Again.
“I’m sure we were all mad at the TV the other night when Dirk made that shot,” Joerger said. “But it is what it is. That’s kind of the way our season has gone.”
The performance from bench players such as Kosta Koufos, pictured, and James Johnson helped lift the Grizzlies to a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, moving them up one game in the playoffs race.
(AP Photo/Lance Murphey)
The job at hand: motivate the Grizzlies for playing a 19-win Lakers team without Kobe Bryant and with a bunch of no-names, aside from Pau Gasol. Get them revved up to play in an atmosphere that would be downright sedate compared to having Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers in the house.
“Talk about Charlotte,” Joerger said of his approach. “We should be foaming at the mouth. It’s not the Lakers; it’s the (playoff) race. It’s ‘let’s go get it on, right from the jump, and do it the whole time.’”
The first part, the Grizzlies got. They scored a season-high 65 first-half points and carried a 19-point lead into halftime. They then treated that halftime lead like so much lounge furniture and went into recline mode.
Although they led by 22 midway through the third quarter, they still managed to find themselves clinging to a scant three-point lead with 14.9 seconds left in the game after Lakers guard Jordan Farmar hit his third, and the team’s seventh, 3-pointer in the fourth quarter.
The Grizzlies would survive with a 108-103 victory to hike their record to 32-24.
“I like the way we stuck together and finished it out,” said guard Tony Allen, who contributed 17 points to the cause. “We look at the standings every day and at the end of the day we got the win.”
Those standings, in the moment, look better than they have in a long time. Phoenix was 33-24 at the end of Wednesday night’s games. The Grizzlies were just a half-game behind for the eighth and final playoff spot. Golden State and Dallas are not out of reach.
But the Grizzlies could finish anywhere from sixth to ninth and out of the playoffs, even if their final win total is pushing up against 50.
“I’m not gonna lie, I do check,” point guard Mike Conley said of the nightly games and subtle shifts in the standings. “But we can’t worry about what they do.”
No, but there is concern that as the Grizzlies have gone 7-4 in February through Wednesday’s game, they are yet to win by double digits. They just can’t seem to take a lead and extend it and make life easy on themselves.
Not even against a Lakers team that lost for the 26th time in the last 32 games.
“We don’t mean to do that, obviously,” Conley said of letting large leads become small ones. “We’d rather walk out of here with a 20-point win.”
If looking for explanations – not excuses, exactly – there are a couple. One, the Grizzlies have been playing must-win games for so long that they have to be mentally and physically fatigued even if they don’t always recognize it.
Two, Joerger is still trying to adjust to a team that is, relative to the rest of the season, “healthy” and with more players and lineup combinations at his disposal. Allen and James Johnson again came off the bench and created “chaos” against the Lakers. Yet when Joerger takes the long view, he’s not sure that playing Allen and Johnson together will always work.
“I don’t know that Tony and James are great (together long-term),” Joerger said. “I know what everyone sees. But in playoff-style basketball, I don’t know that that’s a great combination to play. I have to play Mike Miller with them, I think.
“But the energy that the group provides is tremendous. The two of them out there just wreck stuff and it’s awesome. You don’t want to lose that, but I’m still tinkering on subbing a little bit earlier and shifting up some of our rotations. But those are the guys that are going to play.”
The guys that will play the most, however, are the core players: Conley, center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph. It matters not that Gasol has a brace on his left knee and that Conley is not yet 100 percent after spraining his ankle. The calendar and the standings dictate where a coach places his trust.
“It’s a star’s league and you roll with your stars,” Joerger said. “Not playing a guy down the stretch like I did with Marc against New York, that is a once- or twice-a-year kind of deal.”